John F Kennedy, who was assassinated fifty years ago this November, remains the great mythic hero for the postwar American Left. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s contributions to civil rights and the war on poverty were blighted by the Vietnam War; Jimmy Carter failed even to secure re-election; Bill Clinton’s presidency was undermined by a small-c conservatism and an all-too-unpresidential private life. Kennedy’s repu-tation, however, remains untarnished by either time or evidence, petrified in amber by the tragedy of his untimely death. Although Obama’s presidential campaigning has been most consciously Lincolnian in its language and symbolism, it is against Kennedy that he has most consistently been measured, not least because they are two of the most powerful orators to have occupied the White House in recent years.
While Kennedy’s presidency was by no means a failure, much of his elevated reputation is based on a vision of promise cut short rather than an actual record of delivery. The Kennedy fan club, among whom the authors of these two new books are swivel-eyed members, argues that his early